In cinema, gambling has the tendency to be glamourised and sensationalised, casinos portrayed as slick, stylish dens where dreams come true and everyone goes home a winner. Showing the dirtier side of the coin, and tackling the addictiveness of the habit are writers and directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who are best known for their collaboration on Half Nelson, which told the story of a school teacher hooked on drugs. Their latest project ‘Mississippi Grind’ focuses in on Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), a down-trodden chancer on a losing streak. At the poker table, he meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a happy-go-lucky ladies’ man who likes a flutter but confidently claims that he doesn’t play to win. In an attempt to overturn Gerry’s misfortune and make enough profit to repay his debts, they embark on a betting-fuelled road trip down the Mississippi River.
The buddy relationship that slowly develops at the epicentre of the plot holds interest throughout both their monetary and emotional highs and lows. Because of their flaws and the type of people they are, it is never entirely clear whether they are in fact playing one another, and an intriguing doubt lingers because of this. The clever writing succeeds in conveying a stark contrast between the bitter loneliness of losing alone in the times they are apart on screen, and the ecstasy and adrenaline in sharing a win with a friend. The visuals have a satisfying grubbiness to them that suits the subject matter completely, and the camera revels in long shots of dirty neon signs that juxtapose with the Las Vegas glitz the genre is heavily associated with.
Ben Mendelsohn has a knack of taking acting jobs as dishevelled men with horrible attributes and injecting a likeability into their personas. For too long he has stolen the show in supporting parts with his charismatic performances and now he has a leading role and executes in a way that only he can. You celebrate with them and feel every bad beat as hard as he does, rooting for him not just to end his losing streak but to be dealt a winning hand in life, and more importantly not to ruin it. Reynolds excels in making Curtis everything that Gerry wants to be; confident, charming and of course lucky, but the trick to his multilayered performance is how he unveils enough vulnerability to let the audience into the secret that they are not so different. Curtis’ life is an act in itself.
‘Mississippi Grind’ is everything that a gambling film should be, in that it presents wins as mere glimmers of light in a never-ending tunnel of losses, and yet I still left the cinema with the urge to put a bet on. Boden and Fleck handle the overlooked topic realistically and intelligently, and with humour in just the right places. Mendelsohn and Reynolds strike up an unusual cinematic bromance on an entertaining road-trip. It’d be a joy to tag along as third wheel, as long as you know when to stop and get off.